BE Modern Man: Meet 'the Communications Exec,' Eric J. Henderson - Black Enterprise
Black Enterprise Magazine September/October 2018 Issue

BE Modern Man is an integrative program that honors the essence, image, and accomplishments of today’s man of color. With features of today’s leaders, executives, creatives, students, politicians, entrepreneurs, professionals, and agents of change—these men share the common thread of creating a new normal while setting the bar in tech, art, philanthropy, business, and beyond. The BE Modern Man is making a positive impact, his way, and has a story to tell.

BE MODERN MAN Eric J. Henderson

Name: Eric J.  Henderson 

Age: 49 

Profession: Communications Executive

One Word That Describes You: Student 

I remember clearly a day when I was a kid, promising myself that I would never live a normal life, however I define “normal”” I think it has worked out that way. The catalyst is being a diligent student of life and events.

Social Media: Twitter: @ericjhenderson Instagram: @ericjhenderson Facebook: @eric.is

What does being one of the BEMM 100 Men of Distinction mean to you?

Being one of the BEMM 100 Men of Distinction reinforces a personal axiom: Humanity. We are in a time that rewards negativity, but bad news cannot outweigh core humanity. By that I mean being who we are supposed to be, each one according to the unique gift of personhood he or she has been given. That is a blessing that each one of us can provide to the next person.

What are some examples of how you turned struggle into success?

All of my previous experience rolled up into a complete disaster I had a few years ago. After four straight years of putting 20 hours a day and every fiber into a business …the bottom fell out. I remember so clearly standing in the street, asking, “Now where will I sleep tomorrow?” The introspection lasted 10 long minutes, then I decided not to stare at it because it was so demoralizing. Then I began first to read; first the book of Psalms #77. This next part sounds corny, like I’m channeling “Rocky,” unless you’ve been there: I then thought, ‘This is what my folks built me for!’ Especially my mother, so I told no one and just started moving. It was not an emotional moment. I was looking at exact steps. In a few weeks, I created a brand new life, digging deeply for unique skills that I could put into play. After I came out of the situation, I shared the experience with some and discovered a stunning truth. Those who are true friends will not say, “Ahh, man, you should have told me. I would have helped.” Instead, after sharing the story, I have been asked, even years later, “How are you doing today?” That was huge. It made me patient with other people’s struggles and [I’m more] conscious never, ever, ever to judge. Listen for that question the next time you go through a tough time.

What is an important quality you look for in your relationships with others? 

I look for how quickly and respectfully we can get to real talk. I don’t mean just blunt and plain truth, but truth delivered in the context of trust. Not to say that truth without trust is not still truth. We should not be so sensitive as not to listen closely for truth, even from strangers. But, truth delivered in context makes for a deeper change. With each person we know and meet, that particular language and the dance of meaning underneath the words is a delicate one. That dance is one I embrace. Real women and men know we can’t forsake the dance. I have made a real friend in a day, another real friend in a year. Both relationships are equal in value to me.

What are some immediate projects you are working on?

In 2015, my business partner Michael Cerenzie and I negotiated the largest film deal of its kind (valued at $800 million) with the state-run China Film Group. Right now, I continue to work in film, currently planning a two-day programming session for the Cannes Film Festival on “Women, Diversity, and Global Entertainment: A Multi-Sector Approach,” working with a wonderful CEO and producer, Monica R. Cooper of Make It Happen Entertainment. We are bringing both prominent and less heard voices to move the conversation past the traditional observation, “we need more…in film” to how we can begin work today, in asymmetric collaborations across business, art, and policy. Also, on the heels of a 2017 talk and paper delivered at Oxford (Pembroke College), I am grateful to have been named in 2018 Associate Contributing Editor to the world’s foremost journal of African diaspora art and literature, The Callaloo Journal, founded by the eminent Dr. Charles Rowell. We have a number of projects in the works, including a forthcoming 2019 collaboration with a major university to host in Florence, Italy, an examination of blacks in the Renaissance. Finally, among the latest ventures, it is a pleasure to have been invited just now to the board of ServiceNeverSleeps.org. We are using an “allyship” approach to build bridges to ensure equality, opportunity, and inclusion for everyone . 

Daily, my work is as a communications executive for various clients, including the NBPA Foundation, the charitable arm of the union of professional basketball players, under the leadership of Sherrie Deans. Today’s players go far beyond the stereotypical charity of celebrities. They are making a sustainable difference for the communities they come from and in the world at large. For example, in Flint, Michigan, we are helping to provide families in need with free coupons for vegetables at a local farmer’s market. Over two years, the NBPA Foundation has funded more than $155,000 worth of redeemed vouchers, using posters of NBA players to help promote the program in area schools. 

    1. Over the past 10 years, I have led projects for world-leading philanthropic organizations and, as a writer I have covered some of that work for the Huffington Post, exploring the intersection of Art, Policy, Philanthropy.. As inaugural Chief Curator for Markets For Good, I spent three years on a project of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Liquidnet, I interviewed over 500 nonprofit and NGO leaders and wrote over 150 articles on the use of data in the social sector. The archive is available at digitalimpact.io, housed at Stanford University. A highlight of this work has been the Financial Times editor for philanthropy noting that an article I wrote for AdAge (Large-Scale Philanthropy and Big Brands Need Deeper Collaboration“) defined “the big shift in philanthropy.” 
    2. I continue working as an artist, especially as a way to inform my thinking. My photography work is self-taught after finding a 1950 Kodak Brownie Hawkeye at a makeshift bazaar on 125th and Park Avenue in 2003. Since then I have shot two Super Bowls as part of a global campaign with Bombay Sapphire. Other work has been commissioned by the BMW Guggenheim Lab,  the Studio Museum in Harlem, and private collectors. Most recently, I’ve had the literal, out-of-body experience of being cast in life-size sculpture on display for six months at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in “Theater of Disappearance” by Adrian Villar Rojas.
    3. Lastly, I’ve always loved basketball, but in a back country, old school way. We never regarded the weather when I was growing up. So, I started a basketball tournament in NYC nine years ago: “Iceball 3on3, Are The Skills Still Ill In The Wind Chill?” We invite only the top streetball talent, D-1 players, and former pros to play 3 on 3 outdoors in the dead of winter. Not a gimmick, just serious throwback basketball. The last edition was a partnership with Adidas in which we used winter gear designed for outdoor winter competition. We are now expanding internationally, starting with Iceball editions in 2019 in Toronto, Paris, and Berlin.

What is the best advice you ever received?

It came from Mr. Brooks at my church back home in Texas. “If you don’t need it, it’s not on sale.” It may sound like advice on money. It is that, but also, when it sunk in, it made me concentrate on how to relegate the expendable things in life to being truly expendable. I’ve morphed that advice into my own version, “It ain’t low-hanging fruit if that fruit ain’t important.”

What is some advice you have for other men who want to make a difference?

I take an example from Nehemiah here. He rose to a high position but still felt an ache to help his people rebuild the tattered wall around Jerusalem. But he didn’t just run out of his post. He met with his king. He surveyed the situation. Got funding and permission from the king. Fended off attacks alongside everyone working, including many who did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other. The advice: rebuild the wall. Everybody has a part.

How do you prep for an important business meeting and/or event?

Study. Down to the gnat’s toenails, I do my homework. On everything, everybody. The room, the coffee, the  smallest thing. I take a major cue from art producer Asad Raza, who is quite gifted at  “solving the scenario,” a phrase I borrow from Han Ulrich Obrist during an interview I wrote for Huffington Post about Asad. I also grab a random book off the shelf, often, because I know there will be some useful analogue to open up my thinking. This is the pregame ritual.

As a busy Modern Man, how do you unwind on vacation? Share a story about your best vacation.

I will be banned from NYC if the first line here does not include a perfect cigar and silence, made even better if discussing the world’s events with artist Gavin Baker from his Tokyo studio, 10k East. I call those moments themselves cheap vacations. But, if I were to think classic “best vacation,” it would be a non-vacation trip to Brazil to teach photography. We went to a neighborhood in Mare just outside of Rio’s center, a destination that taxis didn’t even want to go to. Finally, one said, “Cool. But only at the gate.” Some with the group began to snap photos and I caught a bad chill at that because I could imagine word running up the mountain in a bad way of some disrespectful tourists. But I’m not a tourist. It wasn’t my neighborhood, but it was an “us” that I knew. So, before doing anything, with Kristin Hayden as my witness, I asked that we all stop taking photos and find the photo man. People asked if I knew someone there. I didn’t, but I know that every neighborhood has someone who’s been there many years before me, taking pictures. The kids found him. He saw my Brownie camera, then pulled out a fly digital camera he uses along with a box camera that he made by hand. After we chopped it up for a few, he gave his implicit blessing for me to move freely … with the images eventually being exhibited under the sponsorship of Starbucks at their then-busiest location in NYC. That is love.

If you could travel and stay anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?

Jumping on a plane right now, I would go to Nova Scotia and spend some time. From Veracruz, Mexico, to the top of Canada we moved at the impulse of slave conditions. I want to see the trail. Then off to Kamchatka peninsula to see bears, salmon, volcanoes, and small towns. Who resists that? 

What is your “Extraordinary Impact”? (Describe how you are making a major difference for others, in a way that distinguishes you as extraordinary in your profession and/or day-to-day life).

I work continuously at the macro level, particularly with foundations and other social sector groups, e.g. publishing over 200 articles with Markets for Good. However, I fully believe the biggest impact does not happen on stage. I mentor on a one-on-one level with a focus on building capacity in young men. I am thankful, for example, that Roudy St. Fleur has taken a large hand in helping me build the Iceball property. He does not know it but he has done CEO-level work and done it very well. I put responsibility in their hands. Further, I teach whenever and whatever I can: photography, Spanish, Portuguese, Sunday School, and more.

Anything else you’d like to say?

Send good thoughts on running, and come run with me in Central Park. Trying to break a personal best (2 hours, 53 minutes) in the marathon over the next 12 months. Another mountain.

It’s our normal to be extraordinary. Follow @BEModernMan and join the conversation using #BEModernMan.

Come celebrate the BE Modern Man 100 Men of Distinction at the 2nd Annual Black Men XCEL, Aug. 29–Sept. 2, 2018, at PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. 

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